Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writing Materials and the Present Moment

Rocpoc, Flickr Commons
In the next series of postings, I will be discussing the material conditions of writing and the importance of staying present to the physical realities of writing.  Several of those upcoming posts will focus on the marvels of the Post-It note.

In Understanding Writing Blocks, Keith Hjortshoj offers an example of the importance of the material side of writing. It’s an example I frequently tell my students.

Hjortshoj describes a student, Paul, who is struggling to complete college courses because he can’t turn in written assignments. It’s not because Paul is unintelligent or unmotivated. When Paul was in grade school, his father, a professional writer, insisted on reading and critiquing all of Paul’s assignments before they were turned in to a teacher.

According to Hjortshoj, “by the time he graduated from high school Paul dreaded writing anything because he knew he would have to show it to his father and knew it would be terrible.”

Speed forward to college. Paul was failing his college courses because he couldn’t finish even a paragraph without feeling like it was flawed.

One day, Paul is at last able to turn in an essay.

The night before, he’s snarled up in his usual anxieties about writing, tossing out paragraphs, when he realizes he’s run out of fresh paper and has to use crumpled sheets from his waste bin.

Paul is able to complete the essay by using ruined paper—and he continues to do so in his other courses by turning in final drafts composed on physically imperfect sheets of paper—ones with “some little flaw—a dot of ink maybe, or a little tear” on it.

What’s going on here?

In Paul’s case, by interacting with the physical objects involved in writing (the sheets of paper), he is able to deal with an imaginary audience (his father, the Critic), one not really in his Present moment. When he stains or tears the paper, Paul is making contact with an aspect of the Present moment (the paper) and recognizing that an aspect of the Past (his father) is not actually in the room.

The physical aspects of writing serve two important functions toward mindful writing.

#1: Those physical aspects—our typing hands, the pen we use, the notebook or journal we select—are all bells calling us to the Present moment and to the language and ideas passing through our minds in the now.

They help us see what is really present as well as what is not present (an audience). Remember, most of the time, we are alone when we write and any audience is a construction of our internal dialog.

#2: The material aspects of writing also have the potential to adjust our intrapersonal voice—our internal conversation.

That is, certain materials suggest a certain relationship to ourselves and to audience.

Writing a draft of an article, for instance, solely on Post-Its sets us up for one type of relationship to ourselves and to audience.  Post-Its are a forum for informal, note-like writing. We associate Post-Its with low-stakes writing, tasks not expecting perfection or audience.

Writing a book draft with crayons or Magic Markers sets us up for another type of relationship to our words and to audience. Crayons and Magic Markers carry the connotation of the child-like, the free and imaginative, and they help kick out any high-stakes professional audience because I certainly won’t be showing my crayon writings to an editor.

The physical side of writing can also hinder us. Think of the person who wants to start a novel and purchases a fancy journal. I feel immediately worried for this person’s writing ability. This leather-bound journal with the expensive paper is practically soaked in critique: it’s expecting perfect words from the get-go. 

So what's inside your sheet of paper?

Have your writing materials ever brought you to the Present moment as you write? Do tell: please post a comment.








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